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America The Beautiful

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Centennial by James A. Michener


Centennial was my Colorado pick for the Around the USA in 52 Books Challenge.  And, I  might add, having read it, I have completed the challenge!  Yay for me!

Doubly exciting was fact that Centennial was a wonderful read.  As usual, Michener takes a place and goes far back into history, showing how it was formed geologically, and then how it was settled by people.  I especially enjoyed his depictions of the Arapaho and Comanche and how settlement of the area affected them.  There was a great deal about the treatment of Native Americans and Michener’s research is excellent here.

I also enjoyed hearing how cattle were brought into Colorado and the evolution of cattle ranching from Texas longhorns to Herefords and various breeding issues.  I’m not necessarily a huge bovine lover, but as a North Dakota native, you can’t help but have an interest in cattle.

And then, in the early 20th century, farming was attempted in the near desert areas.  They tilled and furrowed the land, stripping it of the sod which held the dirt in place.  Giant dust storms were created and thus Colorado became part of the dustbowl during the depression.  I remember asking my dad about that time, and he said he remembered shoveling huge piles of dust that blew in from these storms.

Also mentioned was the planting of sugar beets.  I live in sugar beet country, so I had no idea that Colorado also had that in common with North Dakota.  Michener’s tales of trying to hire workers to help thin the beets, was a fascinating look at the evolution of immigrants and migrant workers.

Overall, great story.  Not quite as good as Hawaii and Alaska, but that’s probably just a personal preference.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1976
909 pages

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A Nation Rising by Kenneth C. Davis

A Nation Rising

What I thought would be an interesting history book,  entitled A Nation Rising:  Untold Tales of Flawed Founders, Fallen Heroes, and Forgotten Fighters from America’s Hidden History, has turned out to be a political pundit’s adaptation of his worldview to various historical events.  In other words, there is little true history on these pages.

I will admit up front that I only read the introduction and the first 61 pages – the section about Aaron Burr’s trial.  (I couldn’t stomach reading any further!) From the beginning, when author Kenneth C. Davis claims that the election of Barack Obama was a “transforming moment” in American History.  I paused, then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Truly, the election was merely an indicator of something that had already happened:  race is no longer an impediment to higher office.  But, maybe Davis was going to enlighten me beyond the usual partisan pap.

Nope.  The first chapter didn’t get any better.  Davis intimates that Aaron Burr was an all-around good guy, who seemed to have given Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton no reason to dislike the man.  The nastiness of campaign attacks in the 1800 election were clearly enough to create enmity all around.  But apparently Davis forgets all this.  Next he states that Jefferson used the power of the presidency to bring false treason charges against Burr, much like Bush punished Joseph Wilson for speaking out against the Iraq war by outing his CIA wife, Valerie Plame.  The only similarity here was likely that both Presidents were innocent of any wrongdoing in these cases.  The fact that Davis alters history by bringing in his own conjecture shows that this man is no historian.

If you love history give this one a miss.

0 stars (out of 5)
published in 2010294 pages

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David And Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David And Goliath

David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
What are advantages?
What is the inverted U-shaped curve?
And why was David’s defeat of Goliath NOT surprising?
Gladwell, has written another page turner. Not only did I enjoy the stories- although some were very gruesome indeed, but I also appreciated how the theme of the book fit with “AntiFragile” and my interest in Systems and Complexity.
There are three sections to the book: The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages), The Theory of Desirable Difficulty, and The Limities of Power. I even found the Notes in the Addendum are interesting.

320 pages

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The Day The World Discovered The Sun by Mark Anderson

The Day The World Discovered The Sun

The Day The World Discovered The Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus
I viewed and photographed the 2012 Venus transit, so this book caught my attention. It  deals with the 1761 and 1769 Venus transit of the sun. Why was this important? In 1761, little was known about our world; even less about our solar system. By using some careful measurements of angles, timing the transit, and some complex trigonometry, scientists of the day could measure the distance to the Sun and all the visible planets. Those who were enlightened at the time, including a couple monarchs, became quite excited by the prospect. There was a friendly competition between the countries. Yet it was far more difficult that it sounds. Travel was a dangerous proposition at best and the tools for measuring time were far from accurate. Anderson has written an enjoyable book, filled with adventure, science, and history.

304 pages

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Dear Boy by Tony Fletcher

Dear Boy

Dear Boy: The Life Of Keith Moon
It’s been 32-years since I read “Full Moon” by Dougal Butler, plenty of time to revisit Keith Moon, drummer for my favorite rock band The Who. Fletcher’s book is more detailed and deeply researched, but Butler’s book is more of a memoir as he was Keith’s friend, companion and chauffeur through out much of the drummer’s career with The Who. I’ve been reading Chris Charlesworth’s blog: just backdated. Charlesworth was an editor of “Dear Boy” and mentions it repeatedly in his highly readable music blog, so I thought I would give it a read.

It’s a pretty good read, but it does come across as the work of a fan and not a researcher. There is too much editorializing, and Fletcher gives the benefit of the doubt to Moon at every turn. Now that I’m older the stories are no longer funny, only sad. Moon was the perfect drummer for the Who (at least in the early years) but he is far from a great drummer. I doubt few bands could deal with his energy or intensity. Off stage his friendly personality traits were swamped by the monster he became as he abused alcohol, drugs, sex, money, and relationships. His death was almost a forgone conclusion. I like to think if he were around today, at the same age, mental health professionals could have treated his underlying ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ and found treatment for his substances abuse.

632 pages

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Winter Of The World by Ken Follett

Winter Of The World

I think I’m going to have to create a special list for Ken Follett books.  I’m going to call it “Books I hate and love at the same time.”  On the one hand, he writes a darn entertaining novel.  In spite of it’s nearly 1,000 pages, the pages turn quickly and I was reluctant to put it down.  On the other hand, Follett really burns me with his too modern characters and inaccurate depictions of history.  When you start yelling “Are you kidding me?” and complain about the author to your family members (while still being unable to walk away from the book), you know you have a love/hate relationship.

What follows might constitute spoilers for the book, although they are small and don’t give away any big surprises.  However, if you want to read the book without knowing anything about it beforehand, by all means, stop here.  If you want to hear my complaints about Follett, keep reading.

Winter of the World is Follett’s sequel to Fall of Giants, an epic story that follows English, American and Russian families through the Great War in the first book, and now World War II in the second.  Lady Maud has married a German at the end of Fall of Giants, so now we have her family’s storyline taking place in Nazi Germany during World War II.

The heroes of Follett’s book are all Socialists, who appear to hate democratic conservatives, Fascists and Communists equally.  The author props up Roosevelt and alludes to his problems as being the fault of conservatives.  In one early chapter Woody DeWar defends Roosevelt’s decision not to support the anti-lynching bill by saying he needed Congressional support for the New Deal.  All around this scene is dialogue like “damn Conservatives!” and trashing of the Republicans.  A person not acquainted with history would assume that it was conservative members of Congress that were preventing Roosevelt from signing the bill, when in fact it was southern Democrats.  The bill was introduced by a Republican and had broad conservative support.

Later, when the United States enters into World War II,  two of the main American characters decide to join the military because they want to help in the war effort.  But, neither of them want to fight.  They both want desk jobs.  This sounds like a modern left-leaning American to me.  I’ve read far to many autobiographies and biographies from World War II veterans, and the one thing they have in common is they all want to fight.  In fact, the ones that were assigned desk jobs complained bitterly and tried anything they could to be sent overseas.

And let’s look at Lady Maud and her German family.  Her daughter, Carla, helped to spy for the Russians and when the war ended and they found themselves in the Russian sector of Berlin, Carla was raped and their family was left to starve.  In non-fiction books I have read, the Russians treated well those that refused to join the Nazi party.  They were given jobs and food.  I can’t imagine that this family would not have immediately confessed their espionage activities to the Russians in the hopes of better treatment.  Better yet, why didn’t they go back to England?  Follett uses the excuse that the Earl disowned his sister because she married a German,  but he certainly wasn’t her only family member, and Lady Maud is British.  For sure, Maud and her family would have left Germany.

I could go on and on, but I won’t.  I’m not sure if I’ll read the third part of this trilogy, Edge of Eternity (which is due to hit the bookshelves on September 16th).  I’ll have to carefully read a few reviews first to see what direction Follett is taking this novel.  It’s likely to deal with more recent history, and that might make me even angrier if he continues to revise history like he has in his previous books.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012
940 pages

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